Democrats are planning to make the scandals surrounding President Trump a key part of their pitch to recapture the House majority this fall. But the one that’s overshadowed all others—Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion—is the presidential controversy that Democratic leaders view as the least politically potent on the campaign trail.
The party sees corruption, not collusion, as the scandal-related message that will resonate most in the midterm elections—a way to connect the seemingly daily controversies of the Trump administration with the Republican Congress’s policies on health care and taxes that polls show are unpopular with the electorate.
“Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said as she stood alongside other Democratic leaders on the steps of the Capitol last month to unveil a new anti-corruption plank in the party’s 2018 platform. “Republicans, the White House, and the Congress are cravenly beholden to big money interests, and the American people are paying the price.”
“Drain the swamp” is a familiar refrain not merely because Trump commandeered it on his way to the White House two years ago; it was a rallying cry for Pelosi when Democrats last retook control of Congress in 2006. And in terms of targets for controversy, the Trump administration has given Democrats an embarrassment of riches. Every day seems to bring a new allegation of graft or other wrongdoing against Scott Pruitt, the embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump’s first health and human services secretary, Tom Price, resigned after acknowledging that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to fly across the country in private planes. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development was found to have spent $31,000 on a new dining-room set for Secretary Ben Carson’s office. (He later requested for the furniture order to be canceled.)
Ethical controversies have also dogged Trump and his family from his first day in office, whether it be his refusal to release his tax returns or his use of the presidency to promote his business and properties around the world.
“The challenge for Democrats is not finding a reason to fire the Republican Congress,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has served in senior roles for the party’s House campaign arm. “It is figuring out which reason—or reasons—is the most compelling in a congested media market often dominated by executive-time tweets.”
Prosecuting congressional Republicans for Trump’s scandals is a trickier proposition for Democrats than it might seem. The scandal that has dominated the headlines and threatens Trump’s presidency—the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia and Mueller’s inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice by trying to stop the investigation—is the one party leaders would like to see their candidates pretty much avoid.
“People think some of this other stuff is a distraction from addressing their other concerns,” Pelosi said in reference to the Mueller probe at a Politico event last month.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have tried, with mixed success, to tamp down calls for Trump’s immediate impeachment if the party wins back the House. And they have vented their frustration at the at-times obsessive and granular coverage cable networks have devoted to the Russia inquiry at the expense of issues like the new tax law or the GOP’s continued assault on the Affordable Care Act. “Impeachment is a distraction,” Pelosi said, “as are all these shows that talk about the president and the court and the this and the that.”
Top Democrats have tried—without success, so far—to pressure Republicans to act legislatively to protect the Mueller probe. But from a political standpoint, the more mundane reports suggesting graft or the misuse of taxpayer dollars by senior administration officials offer the party an easier opportunity to paint the president and his party as enablers—not drainers—of the D.C. swamp.
This approach, however, is viewed with unease by some activists who worry that the party will miss an opportunity to rally progressives behind an aggressive policy agenda if it devotes too much attention to scandals that don’t resonate with voters. “Democrats cannot try to win the 2018 election on a technicality,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “It can’t be just anti-Trump and it can’t be just Ben Carson’s silverware.”
Democrats initially planned to focus exclusively on the bread-and-butter economic issues—jobs, wages, and health care—that they placed at the center of the “Better Deal” campaign platform they unveiled last year. These include a higher federal minimum wage, paid family leave, stronger union protections, and legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs. But they later determined that they needed to incorporate an anti-corruption, government-reform plank as well. The primary reason, Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland told me, is that they found voters were deeply skeptical that any of their big-ticket economic ideas were possible without overhauling the system.
So Sarbanes led a task force to put together what Democrats have dubbed “A Better Deal for Our Democracy.” It’s a hodgepodge of mostly recycled proposals to change campaign-finance laws, tighten lobbying rules, and tackle some of the bigger loopholes that they believe Trump and his allies have exploited while in office. Democrats put out only a three-page document to accompany their public rollout last month, and there aren’t many specifics. The white paper calls for “modernizing” and securing the states’ election systems, pursuing automatic voter registration, and requiring states to set up independent redistricting commissions to curtail gerrymandering. Two other sections on ethics laws and campaign finance are mostly broad-brush talking points. Sarbanes said a more detailed set of proposals is expected over the summer, which could include a call for a nationwide small-donor matching program for congressional campaigns and bills to codify norms that have fallen away during the Trump era, like requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
The idea, Sarbanes said, is to combat growing voter cynicism about the possibility of achieving progressive policies.
“What we realized is that in order for people to begin to invest in our economic agenda, we had to have an accompanying reform agenda that said, ‘Ok, we get the fact that you don’t believe these things can happen, and you’re largely right under the current broken system,’” Sarbanes told me. “‘That’s why we’re going to go fix the institutions. That way the economic agenda and any other agenda that we’re pursuing for you can actually happen.’
“The reform message can caffeinate every other message that we’re presenting to the electorate,” he continued. “It gives it a little extra oomph. It gives people a little extra hope that you can actually achieve that.”
Democratic strategists unaffiliated with the party leadership praised the anti-corruption focus, citing polls that have found voters already see the GOP tax law as a gift to wealthy donors. “People view it as a corrupt deal,” said Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster.
Greenberg urged Democrats to stay away from calls for Trump’s impeachment and said that while Mueller’s Russia probe was “critical to the survival of our democracy,” the party was better off focusing on the GOP tax bill and its broader argument for government reform. “I don’t think anyone believes that’s our election message,” Greenberg said of the Russia investigation. “We know it’s something that has to happen, but the pay-for-play corruption—that is key to the way Republicans and Trump are governing. And the tax bill is a symbol of that.”
In April, a firm that Ferguson advises conducted polling to test Democratic messages against the GOP. Asked to best describe their concerns with Republicans in Congress, a plurality of 1,009 respondents—including more than one-quarter of Republicans—chose the following: “They are in the pockets of big donors and corporations.” Options that earned less agreement included that Republicans were too conservative or that they were “a rubber stamp for Trump.” Another question asked about the motivations of GOP lawmakers: Did they vote for the tax cuts because they believed they were good for the economy, or because they “wanted to help wealthy individuals and corporations who regularly support Republican campaigns?” The responses of Republicans and Democrats fell predictably along party lines, but more than six out of 10 independents chose the more nefarious reason.
“The corruption argument is the cause, and hurting the middle class is the result,” Ferguson said. “From every poll, we know voters reject what Republicans are trying to do on taxes and on health care. But for voters to believe it, they need to know why Republicans are doing it. The answer to why is to please the people who are funding their campaigns.”
Republicans scoffed at the Democrats’ anti-corruption push. “Democrats don’t have a unified midterm message beyond passing single-payer health care, undoing the Republican tax plan, and all-out obstruction to our agenda,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Candidates often treat these national agendas as menus—picking certain planks to emphasize according to their district. It’ll be up to them, then, to determine how they choose to incorporate the anti-corruption message sent down by leadership into their campaigns.
Progressive groups have long pushed Democrats to embrace a bolder anti-corporate agenda that includes campaign-finance reform. Green told me he liked the party’s message in going after the GOP tax law and health-care policies—with a caveat.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do the corruption message,” Green warned. “The swamp is much bigger than a couple thousand dollars for a table set or tens of thousands of dollars for a plane ride. It’s the billions of dollars that go into buying politicians and putting the kibosh on things like Medicare for All or Wall Street reform. And that’s the stuff that people actually care about.”